Welcome back to Side By Side. There are always two sides to every story, and we’re going to bring them both, right here, every week. Two of our staff writers will face off on an important racing question … feel free to tell us what you think in the weekly poll and also in the comments section below!
This Week’s Question: Do NASCAR drivers need to be more accessible to their fans on race weekends?
Amy Henderson, Managing Editor: Drivers Can And Should Do More
Racing, like all professional sports, owes its very existence to fans. If nobody watched, if nobody cared, NASCAR would not exist, and stock car racing would not have progressed from weekend contests in someone’s hay field to see whose souped-up machine could outrun the other. There would be no racetracks that seat thousands upon thousands, no souvenir trailers hawking brightly-colored wares, no handsome paychecks at the end of the race. The fans are everything.
As NASCAR grew as a sport, in the 1950s and ’60s, a few drivers began to recognize the importance of a true connection between competitors and race fans. Perhaps nobody was a better ambassador than a young driver whose star as on the rise: Richard Petty. Petty quickly gained the reputation as someone who was good to the people who paid to see him race. He would sign autographs for anyone who asked, often long after the checkered flag flew. It wasn’t an unusual sight to see Petty after a race, even one where he had had a wreck or mechanical failure, meeting followers with a smile on his face.
As the sport grew, causing national companies to sign on as sponsors, they too, for the most part, recognized the importance of making drivers available to fans. They often organized events both at the track and away from it, providing fans opportunities to meet their heroes and get their signatures on a T-Shirt, autograph book, or other piece of memorabilia. Right up until about the last five or ten years, it was common to see 10-15 drivers’ souvenir rigs advertising an appearance. It used to be first come, first served, then fans could line up to get a coveted ticket. Finally, as popularity exploded these events often ended up being available only to those who purchased an item, sometimes a specific one, such as a book the driver was promoting.
And now? There are a few drivers who still venture to their souvenir haulers on weekends or scrawl a hurried signature in the garage on their way to somewhere they deem more important; but those opportunities are getting fewer and farther between. Sponsors aren’t really on board any more, either, preferring to tote their drivers to corporate meet and greets rather than out to meet fans. You don’t see Jimmie Johnson or Matt Kenseth at the grand opening of a new Lowe’s or Home Depot like you once did. Even for the lucky fans who are able to procure garage passes, drivers remain elusive, preferring to hide in their haulers between practice sessions or skulking out the back door to head off to the restricted drivers’ motorhome lot.
And that’s just not good for the sport. Part of the reason for NASCAR’s explosive growth in the 1990s was the accessibility that fans had – there were lots of chances to meet their heroes and get a signature. In contrast, fans aren’t going to relate to a driver who is indifferent to them. They aren’t going to buy a sponsor’s product if they feel that company’s driver snubbed them.
An NHRA drag racing event provides a real eye-opener on the subject of accessibility. In that sport, every fan’s ticket allows him or her nearly unrestricted access to the pit areas where the teams work. Only the areas directly next to the haulers, where the racing machines are being worked on are roped off. With fans so close, the drivers come out and interact as much as they can. It’s not limited to a few young or small-team drivers trying to build a fan base, either; it is nearly everyone, from 15-time champion John Force to current champs and rising stars. It’s everyone. And get this — they look like they’re having fun interacting with their fans!
Perhaps reigning NHRA Top Fuel champion Antron Brown sums it up best in just one sentence: “I was one of them once,” he says. Brown remembers the days when he was the wide-eyed kid watching the sport and how he looked up to his heroes.
Another story that gives pause here is the story of one of John Force’s young daughters, all of whom also race at the NHRA’s top levels, in tears because she had a commitment and couldn’t possibly get to all of the people seeking her autograph before she had to leave. Imagine that; you have a driver genuinely upset that they couldn’t make enough time for the fans.
In NASCAR these days, you don’t hear many stories like that. There certainly are some, and a lot of the drivers are good to their fans. That’s important to remember; they aren’t heartless jerks. But you’re a lot more likely to hear of a person who’s upset that they were overlooked by their driver than of one who’s downcast because he can’t sign more autographs. Five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson relates to that. He remembers being upset as a small child upon finding out that Cale Yarborough, his favorite driver, wasn’t inside every Hardee’s restaurant (the chain sponsored Yarborough at the time and to the small Johnson, that clearly meant he’d be inside). It’s a cute story, but it also illustrates the disappointment of a fan at not being able to meet his hero.
Today’s drivers would do well to take a lesson from the NHRA crowd. Why not venture outside the hauler between practices after the debriefings are done and talk to the fans who are lucky enough to have garage access, snap a picture or two, and share a smile? Why not take an hour between sponsor obligations to sign at the souvenir rig? Why not stay for a half hour after a race, even one that ended early (maybe especially one that ended early) to thank some kids for their support?
I’m not talking about taking time away from race preparations, either; this effort could all be done in the down time between practices, after a day is over, and before the drivers’ meeting on race day. This connection isn’t something that should take away from a driver’s job… but should, rather, be considered part of it. In the scheme of things, those small spans of time won’t take much from a driver’s weekend, but they could make a fan’s — especially a young kid’s — whole day, maybe even their year. Drivers need to remember it’s about perspective and to realize that they’re someone’s own childhood hero, just like the heroes they once had and longed to meet.
Sponsors, too, need to realize that perhaps the best use of their driver’s time isn’t in the corporate suite, where most of the people inside care more about the bottom line and the benefits of sponsorship than about the sport itself, but instead with the fans who will be connected to the product. Race fans are fiercely loyal; ask a Jimmie Johnson fan how often he shops at Home Depot, a Jamie McMurray fan if they eat at Burger King, or a Kevin Harvick fan if they drink Coors. You won’t find many who will admit to that.
There was a time when NASCAR drivers seemed to genuinely enjoy spending a little time with their fans; but now, as often as not, they seem to shrink away from taking the time to be a true ambassador of the sport they love. It’s time to get back to doing that. A few minutes to sign a hat or snap a picture won’t ruin a driver’s day, but it will make a fan’s. And in a day where fans are turned off by the direction the sport is heading, it can use all the good will it can get. And that starts with the drivers. They need to remember the reason the sport exists for them to race in… and that’s the fans who look up to them.
Mark Howell, Senior Writer: Nobody’s Owed a Thing
NASCAR drivers – like any other kind of professional athlete – do not owe their fans either time or attention during race weekends. The argument has always been that without the fans, there’d be no NASCAR, but that’s not really the case.
Sure, there was a time during the sport’s infancy when fans needed to be wooed and won over with autographs, photographs, and personal time; “King” Richard Petty earned fame, in part, because he would spend hours with them after a race. Most of his Hall-of-Fame status came from his record 200 Winston Cup victories, but most of his legend was built on a reputation for meeting fans and giving them the attention they craved.
Such was the nature of big-time stock car racing during those early years, that era when the sport was still wrestling with its infamous legacy of good ol’ boys who went from outrunning the ATF to following the “benevolent dictatorship” of Big Bill France. It was important for NASCAR competitors (both drivers and crew members) to connect with fans because the sport was seeking to achieve a place within mainstream America. The theory was that as long as fans could identify with drivers and feel connected to them through personal interaction, fans could then better identify with the sport. Getting close to their favorite driver made fans devoutly loyal to NASCAR’s holy trinity: the sacred relationship that formed between the fan, their driver, and his sponsors.
It’s true that much of NASCAR’s success comes from a tradition of maintaining an “open door” policy with fans. It’s also true that much of the sport’s success comes from a tradition of serious competition. Drivers face dangerous challenges every time they show up at a NASCAR event. A driver has to focus on practice, set-ups, and qualifying, and that’s all before they strap in for the race itself. Any lap turned in search of a faster time or a better position can result in a wrecked car, an injury, or worse.
Expecting drivers to be at every fan’s beck and call seems irresponsible. Each of them – regardless of his or her series – has to make driving the highest priority. That’s difficult to do if you’re constantly besieged by fans seeking “just one more” photo or autograph.
Imagine if the tables were turned. Wouldn’t there be a problem if a lawyer, about to argue a case before the Supreme Court, was suddenly approached by an admirer seeking a photograph? What about the chief surgeon at the Mayo Clinic getting hit up by their “biggest fan” for a quick autograph while said doctor scrubs up before doing open-heart surgery?
Let’s downshift a bit. What about the FedEx delivery person, or the elementary school teacher, who has to forsake their tight schedule (and long list of responsibilities) in order to give a few minutes to a loyal well-wisher? Such demands could be considered wildly intrusive, possibly rude, and maybe even illegal. So why should we expect Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Danica Patrick, or Dale Jr. to put their race-day focus on hold while taking time to meet-and-greet the fans gathered along pit road?
NASCAR has tried to capitalize on its “open door” tradition by adopting a “pay toilet” philosophy – if fans want driver autographs, charge them for the chance. We’ve watched as tracks added “Fan Zones” and other limited access enclosures to their renovated facilities; while this lessens the amount of contact drivers have with autograph-seekers, it also enables the track to score a tidy sum of added revenue. Suddenly, drivers find themselves with an even-more distracting demand on their time and concentration: the “racer-in-its-natural-habitat” exhibit. It reduces fan/driver contact, and it’s still an unreasonable expectation to make given a busy race weekend.
Should drivers be expected to sign/pose for fans away from the track? In that case, I say most definitely. That’s typically why drivers show up at auto dealerships and supermarket grand openings; an environment away from the racetrack allows drivers to connect with NASCAR Nation and create memories for their loyal supporters. It’s presumptuous, though to expect drivers to give time to fans at a speedway when their talents and energies are required elsewhere.
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